3 Passes Trek Adventure Photography Life Nepal Trail Running Travel

“No that’s impossible.”

I don’t think there is a better motivator than someone telling you that you cannot do something.

The view from Renjo La pass during the run at sunrise.

Backstory 

In May 2012, I went to Nepal with my friend Jona to take some photos of her for her Rivers of Ribbon Project. During that shoot, I had the opportunity to run a lot around the Everest Base Camp region, and the end of the trip coincided with the Everest Marathon. The Nepalis that we were working with on that trip suggested that I enter the race. They had seen me running around for the previous several weeks and assumed I’d likely win the foreigner category. Visitors are given a fighting chance in the race by having a local Nepali division and a division for people who are not locals, this was also before the race became popular so there was less competition in the foreigner division.

The race starts at Everest Basecamp at 5380m (17,600ft) and finishes 42km (26.1miles) later in Namche Bazaar at 3440m (11,352ft). That year the first foreigner finished in 5:42, a time that I think I would have beaten.

In 2012 I inquired about entering the race, but the race fee was $750, and I decided not to. In hindsight, I wish I had joined the race because I’ve spent the last 7 years regretting not running it and $750 seems like a small price to pay to do something vs wishing I had done something for that long…

The Catalyst

Fast forward to last month, and I was in Nepal again. I spent a lot of time in Thame and made some great friends at the Sunshine Lodge. One night while hanging out waiting for Quentin Roberts and Juho Knuuttila to finish their attempt on Teng Kang Poche I got into a discussion with my friend Nima about doing the 3 Passes Trek. The 3 Passes are an approximately 100km+ loop that goes over the 3 major trekking passes in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Typically, people do the 3 Passes Trek when they want a more challenging and rewarding way to visit Everest Basecamp.

At supper, Nima and I were talking with his friend Ang who was in town guiding a client, and we were discussing if they thought it was possible to do the 3 Passes Trek as a 2-day hike. They were talking a bit of smack and having good fun saying that I wouldn’t be able to complete it in 2 days.

The lodge was packed that night, and we were sitting at a table with half a dozen Sherpa guides. At one point someone overheard us talking about the 3 Passes and my desire to run them. After that, the discussion for the rest of the evening became about how I wouldn’t be able to complete the 3 Passes in 2 days. 

At this point, I was sitting there thinking that 2 days was going to be totally possible and likely comfortable to do. I had planned to take my camera, a sleeping bag and decided I would ‘take my time’ getting sunrise and sunset shots along the way. 

I knew it was ~50km a day, but that’s something that I’d consider doing at home in the Rockies with a similar elevation gain so I knew that I could do it. I had also read about others doing the 3 Passes in 12 hours, they had run 55km of the approximate 100km total though. They completed the 3 passes in half a day, so I knew it was within the realm of possibilities to complete it in two days.

At one point the conversation with the guides got pointed, and they told me it was impossible to complete the loop in 2 days, so I said f*&% you guys I’m going to do it in 1 day. That started quite the back and forth between us…

That really got me motivated to do the run in a day. Now I knew I was going to do the 3 Passes Trek as a run because I wanted to ‘do something’ while I was in Nepal. We had not summited Cholatse, and I was watching Quentin and Juho climbing on Teng Kang Poche. I didn’t want to spend the next 5+ years wishing I had done something cool while I was in the Khumbu.

Chilling at supper with Phurba and the other Sherpa guides. Nima on the right smirking cause he knows I’m going nuts with them telling me I can’t do it and that I’m going to try it in one day now.

The 3 Passes

The usual 3 Passes Trek starts and finishes in Lukla and takes most groups 13-22 days to complete. A lot of this has to do with taking the time to acclimatize, though. The passes are all above 5300m (17,500ft), and long sections of the trail are above 5000m (16,500ft). The route is 166km (103 miles) in total, but I was going to cut off some of the distance because I was not running back and forth to Lukla which is about 21km (13.1 miles) each way. So, I was looking at ~124km (77.5 miles) in total to do the loop. 

Renjo La Pass at sunrise

At the time, I hadn’t convinced myself I was going to do it yet, but I was considering starting in Thame as I thought it would help me in completing it in a day. If I started at midnight, I figured that I would be finished the third pass around sunset and be able to get back to the main trail around dark-o’clock. The main trails weren’t a big concern for me as they are mostly wide well-travelled trails. My largest concern was completing Kongma La Pass (5535m) before it turned dark as that route is less travelled and a bit harder to navigate at night.

But first I had to work

Deciding when I would start the run looked like it could be complicated, I had to juggle a couple things. Quentin and Juho were still on the North Pillar questing up their objective, and we had tentatively discussed them being finished in 7 days total. At the time, I decided to do the run they were on day 4 of their 7-day push. 

Every morning they were on the wall I’d wake up at 2:30am, pack up my stuff and head up Sunder Peak to 5000m to shoot photos of them at sunrise with a long lens. I was averaging about 1200-1800m of elevation gain a day with a heavy pack containing 2 camera bodies, my tripod and several lenses. I knew if I wanted to do the run in a single push that I’d need a rest day or two before heading out.

I was in communication with the guys via satellite devices, and they had planned on taking a rest day on their fifth day. I decided to do the same thing, I figured that there was no need to wake up at 2:30am because I had already shot them the day before in the same location. In my mind, I figured I had another couple of days of shooting and then a rest day or two before I’d start. 

Later that afternoon, around 2pm, I received a message from Juho’s girlfriend saying that they were bailing and that they were already halfway down the face. I wanted to capture some shots of when they finished so I packed up my gear and ran up to Thyangbo where they’d be finishing which was about 2 hours away. They didn’t get down until dark, and I decided to run back to Thame after we had a late supper so that if I chose to do the 3 Passes, I’d be better placed with a full rest day in Thame.

Quentin and Juho have their first real meal in 5 days.

Everyone had tried hard.

The next day Juho and Quentin made it to Thame, and they were obviously wrecked, they had spent 5 days on a wall pushing a new route up an unclimbed granite pillar to 5900m. I, on the other hand, was lounging about jonesing to do something. I decided to take another rest day because running to Thyangbo with a full pack to get photos the day before had actually tired me out quite a bit.

Then, Alan and Tito showed up. They are American friends who had just finished a new route on Teng Ragi Rau, a 6900m peak further up the valley. They were also a wreck having spent 4 days on the mountain and one getting back to Thame.

I was jealous and envied everyone’s state of fuckedupness, both groups had ‘an experience’ but not me. Jealousy sucks and so does ‘wishing’ you had done something. I knew that if I didn’t at least attempt to run the 3 Passes route that I’d be wishing I had for a long time. I was acclimatized and motivated by so I decided there was no sense in waiting any longer and set my alarm for 11:45pm. 

Alan and Quentin talking about their new routes

In the book Living With a SEAL, David Goggins (The SEAL) says that “anger and fear are great motivators”. I was a bit angry at the Sherpa guides who told me I couldn’t run the 3 Passes in a day, these couple of guides were visibly out of shape and not your usual Sherpa Mountain guides. That lingering anger is what finally pushed me to try the one-day attempt.

Camera or No Camera?

Initially, I wanted to take my DSLR with a pancake lens and limit myself to only taking photos for a maximum of 10 minutes during the whole day. I was going to start a timer and make this a limiting factor with the camera, if not I would have never finished in a day, spending too much time taking photos.

I would have shot sunrise forever if I had a DSLR. Everest and Cholatse at sunrise from Renjo La Pass

24 hours of constant movement.

Once I committed to a one-day approach, I ditched the camera. I knew that the weight of the camera and the time I spent using it would be limiting factors to completing 100km+ in the Everest region in a day. If the weight didn’t affect me, taking thousands of photos would. I wanted to do the run more than I wanted pictures of failing to do the run. At first, this was a hard decision, but as I was packing up with an alarm set for 11:45pm, it became easier to accept.

Excuses

I started in Thame because I wanted to get through the last pass before nightfall. Well, I made it to the top of the pass literally as it was turning dark, what I didn’t factor into the equation was the weather that came with it. The forecast was not ideal for the next day, but it was not horrible either. Then, as I descended from Kongma La pass to Chukhung, I got stuck in a whiteout. 

Clouds beginning to chase me up Kongma La Pass

I’ve never been truly lost in the mountains, but I was borderline lost that night. I knew that if I went down, I’d hit a trail but bushwhacking your way down a hill is not as efficient as running down the trail. Fortunately, I had a satellite tracking device with me, and I was able to navigate back to the correct path when I lost it a couple times. On the other two passes, the trail is a highway, but Kongma La Pass is not as well travelled. This added time to my descent and what should have taken 45 mins max took over 2+ hours. 

Heading down Kongma La Pass in the dark started off well.

Then once I arrived at Chukhung, the fog rolled in…

When I was coming down from the pass, the clouds made it harder to see further than about 5m, but when the fog arrived, it was hard to distinguish what was more than 1m away. It made for prolonged travel, and the short 5km distance from Chukhung to Dingboche took over two hours to complete.

At the time I had been moving for 20 hours without stopping, it was dark, I was in a whiteout, the temps were below freezing, and I hadn’t brought more than a medium weight puffy coat to save weight. For a couple of hours during the hike, I was fearful that if I stopped, I’d end up with hypothermia. 

Fun-time selfie with all my layers on

Just like Goggins said, “anger and fear are great motivators”. Well, now it was fear that was motivating me to carry on, although it was only hiking, it felt a little ‘out there’. I was navigating using a phone and Somewear Labs satellite device, it was pitch dark, the weather was terrible, I couldn’t see more than a few feet, and my phone battery was dying…great.

The trails from Chukhung to Dingboche are braided and not straightforward to follow in these conditions, I’ve had more luck following indistinguishable goat trails in the Rockies, but I couldn’t stop.

It’s wasn’t a straight forward trail run anymore.

I explored the option of stopping. I reached out to friends to contact another friend who was in a village nearby, I figured if I could make it there, I could at least crash on the floor. All of the lodges I had passed were closed because it was late and I didn’t have a lot of options. I didn’t really want to stop though, the village where my friend was staying was about 65km (40 miles) into the trip, and I had another 40km+ (25 miles) that I wanted to do.

I received a message from Quentin. He suggested that I should consider stopping to rest… It wasn’t really an option though, I had all my clothes on, I was freezing, it was windy, and I already couldn’t feel my hands. Fear was motivating me to keep moving. I was one small mistake away from having a bad time. I set a goal to make it to the trees and then re-evaluate if I needed to stop. I’d be losing 1000m+, and the trees would block the wind; the temperature difference would be significant.

Following a brief moment of concern the fog lifted at Dingboche and I was able to continue moving towards Namche. Now I was back on a mega trail, and I could travel ‘fast’ again, all I had to do was pound out another 40km (25 miles). If I did not roll an ankle or pass out, I’d be fine.

Passing Tengboche Monastery

What happened

I didn’t end up finishing the 3 Passes in a day. I was able to finish in a single push of 29 hours. However, when 24 hours rolled around, and I was still several hours away from finishing, I messaged Nima. I told him that he had won the bet, I hadn’t completed the 3 Passes in a ‘day’ (24 hours) and that I owed him 2 beers. 

I rolled into Namche at 5:45am, around 28.5/29 hours after starting out. I ended up having to take a couple of 10-minute rests on the trail between 2am, and 4am but other than that it was a non-stop push.

Rolling into Namche still in the clouds at 5:45am

One day I’d like to complete the 3 Passes loop in sub 24 hours, I learned a lot from this attempt, but I’m mostly just happy that I don’t have to sit around thinking about how I should have tried it.  

Over the last 7 years, I wished I ran the Everest Marathon on that 2012 trip, this time, I am glad I do not have to feel the same way about the 3 Passes.

Chilling with Nima after finishing the run

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